Surge in third-level students reporting mental health issues

A spike in third-level students registering with mental health conditions has been attributed to better supports and reduced stigma.

Ahead — the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability — reported a jump from 343 to 501 in the number of new students who made themselves known to disability services as having a mental health condition. However, it said, this 46% rise came as no surprise.

“Supports are improving at second level, meaning more students are coming through and a positive change in public attitudes to mental health is resulting in students feeling more comfortable in disclosing to support services on campus,” said Ahead executive director Ann Heelan.

She said the association’s 2016 research on related issues indicated that creating a positive culture of disclosing mental health conditions is really important. This could be done, for example, by talking openly about services available on campus during college orientation events.

“Clear policies and procedures for college staff on what to do when someone discloses to them can also prove very effective in ensuring that students get the support they need,” said Ms Heelan.

The number of new students registering with ADD/ADHD rose even higher, up 70% from 132 to 224, bringing total numbers to 660 when those in all years of study are included.

Of the 12,500 students registered with college disability services in the 2016/17 academic year, 1,161 did so for the first time despite not being their first year of study. They represented one-in-four newly registered users of the services, which is an issue of concern.

“There has been a noted increase in the number of new registrations over the last few years of this study, which indicates an ever-growing number of students are beginning their studies with no disability support which can have a negative impact on retention rates if not addressed,” the Ahead report states.

The research also found part-time or postgraduate students are less likely to have disabilities than full-time and undergraduate students, although numbers on part-time courses are increasing.

Ahead is pushing for the Higher Education Authority’s Fund for Students with Disabilities to be extended to those doing part-time study, which was recommended in the HEA’s own review last year of the fund that is currently only available to full-time students.

“The undertaking of part-time education is, for some students with disabilities, a more sustainable option than full-time education and for a number of students with disabilities, the only option,” Ms Heelan said.

At the launch of the Government’s 2018 Education Action Plan yesterday, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor said she would oversee measures to facilitate greater participation for disadvantaged students, mature students, and students with disabilities.

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